The day I wrote this (in bits and pieces throughout the day, as I often do), at least three people in three separate, isolated settings asked me how much longer I was going to be here and commented about how quickly the time is going.
By the third time I just smiled and laughed softly to myself before responding. All I could think was; I am so goddamn lucky to be here.
Life isn’t something you possess. It’s something you take part in, and you witness.”
It’s supposed to be a holiday, but the government workers I spend my time with don’t usually get these days off. They spend them organizing events, going to ceremonies, and driving around to different villages. As such, I am tasked with going to a tree-planting ceremony in a nearby village. I admit to being a little grumpy about it, but I try to put on my best face and just go with it.
Before we have even left the government office, two of my counterparts are asking me if I will cancel my classes on Monday to go dance in a performance for the governor’s visit. My annoyance flares up and through my (admittedly very thin) facade of calm.
I resist. I tell them I can’t, I tell them I don’t want to cancel my class, I tell them it’s not convenient, but they won’t let up. Eventually one of them calls up the teacher at my Monday school to move my class to the morning so I can go. Oh, also we will be spending the afternoon practicing for it, so there goes the rest of my so-called holiday.
My counterpart accuses me of being childish and petulant. I think she’s right, but I also tell her I can’t accurately explain why I don’t want to do it, and leave it at that. The real reason is that I don’t like being used as a prop — I would imagine that very few people do. I know that that conversation would not lead to anything meaningful or productive, so I just drop it.
Fast forward a bit;
The weekend is over, Monday has come, and so has the dance. My annoyance has subsided and, although I still don’t like the way I was asked to participate, I appreciate having been a part of the event. We’re back at the government office and I’m sitting at my desk waiting for my ride home to be ready.
In the room with me is one of the mayor’s deputies and the public relations coordinator. In the midst of a normal, everyday conversation, the deputy asks me the same question I have had to hear almost every day for the last six months; “วิลจะกลับเมื่อไร,” “When are you going back home?” I tell him the month and he proceeds to count the remaining months on his fingers. He reaches eight and says what most people say, “ไม่ต้องกลับแล้ว,” “You don’t have to go back anymore.”
It seems odd that this would annoy me so much, but I think I get so annoyed because I don’t know how to answer these questions. “What will you do? Where will you go? Why are you leaving?” I think the annoyance covers up the fact that they’re asking me this because they care, because they’ll be sad to see me go, because they would rather that I stay.
He ends by asking me if I will cry when I leave. I say, of course I will, as I always do when people ask me this. I tell him it will be very, very hard for me to leave. After that he asks me, “จะกลับไปทำไม,” “Then why are you going back?” I can’t explain the reasons to him, partly because I don’t have the words to do it justice, and partly because I don’t rightly know the answer myself. I think about it for a moment and just respond with something like, “Sometimes we have to do things even though they are difficult to do.”
I’m not special here anymore.
This is something I have only recently realized I am struggling with. I am just a part of the fabric of everyday life. I’m not The Foreigner, I’m just Will (or Weeo, to be more accurate). I don’t need special attention, I can take care of myself (mostly), and I can solve my own problems. I think I often take for granted how strange it is that I’m here, that I’m such a fixture here. Guests and visitors will walk into the office and look at me like I’m some kind of alien, sitting behind my desk like I belong there or something. The people I see every day, my friends and coworkers, expect me to be there. I do belong there.
It sounds really selfish, but while being such a normal part of things here is a heartwarming and incredibly unique feeling, I never expected to feel so slighted by not being a priority anymore. When it rains in the morning, no one calls me to see if I need a ride. They know if I need one I’ll ask. I don’t have people texting me while I’m on the bus to ask if I made it to wherever I was going. People don’t invite me to things directly as often as they used to. They assume I know what is happening and that I will find a way to get there if it’s important to me.
They’re right. I can do those things. It’s cool to be such a seamless part of the fabric of this place. I have to admit that it also stings a little bit, and that sting is unexpected. I also realize that this is the price of independence.
One of the things that makes it sting is that I sometimes feel I’m not special until they need me to be. When they have an important visitor come, you can be damn sure they make sure I show up to take photos and impress the guest of honor with my white skin, tallness, and nationality. They don’t ask me to share my work, or talk about how it feels to be a volunteer. They ask me to show up, speak some Thai, and be white.
What I have been realizing recently, however, is that these things are often one in the same. They ask me to do these things in part because I am a farang, and having a farang working in your office is impressive for some reason. They also ask me to do it so that I can take a part in their life. These things that we hate doing, that annoy the shit out of us, they bind us to the people here. I feel honored to take part in something so beautiful, to share life with these people.
These conversations will continue to happen. People will keep asking me when I am leaving, keep telling me the time is going too quickly, keep telling me I should stay, and keep making jokes that I’m going to cry when that day inevitably rolls around. Even though it is challenging on the days when the uncertainty of the future feels like a thousand ton weight resting on my shoulders, I want to try and get used to having them, and to try to have them with grace and understanding.
The trajectory of my time here is fascinating to observe. When I first started I retreated so far into myself. I was so afraid of making mistakes, of screwing up, of doing it wrong, that I kept most of myself hidden, reaching it out once in awhile when it felt safe. After a time I started to feel more like myself, more willing to risk, to dare, to challenge. Once I finally felt like I could be myself here, I started reaching even further, trying new things, challenging things within myself that I didn’t even know were there. Now I find myself trying things that seemed beyond possibility not too long ago.
So here is us, out on the raggedy edge.”
It’s beauty and scope is horrifying and full of possibilities. Who knows where I’ll be six months from now; what kind of things will I put out there? What kind of things will I take in? What will I want?
The answers will come with time. Or not. And that’s okay, too.
The only thing I know right at this moment is that I will never be able to make the people here truly understand how deeply knowing them has impacted me. I can only hope they are able to glimpse a fraction of its magnitude before our time together comes to an end.